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Professional Opinion

3 steps to increase the rigor of your K12 assessments

Ask the right questions to determine true learning
  • Barbara R.Blackburn is the author of Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word; Rigor is Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders; Rigor and Differentiation in the Classroom; and Rigor in the RTI/MTSS Classroom.
  • It’s important to use a set of specific criteria to assess rigor accurately. This sample criteria table incorporates Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and other descriptors of rigor.
  • Are your assignments rigorous enough? Here are examples of less rigorous and more rigorous versions for math, art and social studies.

Rigor is increasingly a concern in our schools. We continue to see evidence that our students in all grades are not working at a level that is challenging enough to prepare them for college and careers.

However, we often misunderstand the definition of rigor. Rigor requires creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so they can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels.

The level of challenge in our assessments—which allows students to demonstrate learning at high levels—is crucial. To provide rigorous assignments for our students, we need to assess our level of rigor, revise tasks to raise the rigor and adjust.

Assess current level of rigor

The first step is to assess the current level of an assessment. Too often, teachers simply use their best judgment as to whether an assignment or task is rigorous. And most of our assessments are not written to require a rigorous demonstration of learning.

It’s important to use a set of specific criteria to assess rigor accurately. The sample criteria table incorporates Webb’s Depth of Knowledge and other descriptors of rigor.

When I work with teachers, there are particular descriptors in the table that are less rigorous, but that teachers consider rigorous. For example, teachers commonly consider application, interpretation and inference to be rigorous. Although they are more rigorous than basic recall, they are simply not at a truly rigorous level.

Another common classroom strategy is for students to create a diagram to explain what they have learned. Although an effective part of building understanding, it should be exactly that: a step that builds toward rigorous learning.

Let’s determine the rigor of a sample question: “What is the theme of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Make sure to use details from the text to support this choice.”

In this case, students are identifying a central theme and explaining an answer using basic information. Therefore, it is not a rigorous question.

Revise to raise the rigor

Our next step is to revise the question to incorporate the criteria of rigor: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears was written nearly 200 years ago. Justify whether this theme applies today. Provide an example from modern life to validate your answer.”

Notice the differences. Students must demonstrate they understand the text, and move beyond the story to incorporate information and examples from real life in a different time period.

As this example shows, simply revising and building on the existing assignment is a good way to increase rigor.

Implement and adjust

The third step is to implement the assessment or task. For students to be successful, the teacher needs to step back and plan instruction so their students are prepared for the assessment.

For example, in a math class, it is more rigorous for students to identify and explain misconceptions. If we only solve equations or word problems, students are not necessarily equipped to work with misconceptions.

It is helpful to use a pattern assessment to determine any adjustments. Ask students to complete a quick self-reflection at the end of the assignment:

1. I know that I did well on this assignment.

2. I did my best and I hope I did a good job.

3. I think I did well, but I’m not sure I understood everything I needed to do.

4. I understood the question, but I don’t think I did my best.

5. I didn’t understand the question.

When teachers complete a pattern analysis on student responses, they may determine that the task is acceptable (based on the first two responses), that students may not have mastered the content or were not prepared appropriately (based on responses 3 and 4), or that prompts were unclear (response 5).

Based on the analysis, teachers can revise this assessment, and more effectively prepare future tasks.

Increasing the rigor of tasks, assignments and assessments is a key aspect of increasing the overall rigor of classroom instruction. By assessing the level of rigor, revising the assignment to incorporate more rigorous work, and adjusting the tasks, students will demonstrate understanding at a higher level. 


Barbara Blackburn is the author of Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word, Rigor is Your School: A Toolkit for Leaders, Rigor and Differentiation in the Classroom, and Rigor in the RTI/MTSS Classroom. Follow her on Twitter @BarbBlackburn.